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On the eve of the Grammys, a chat with nominated kids band The Okee Dokee Brothers

Chicago Tribune

Technically, the band name The Okee Dokee Brothers is a fib. But like all good fiction, it actually tells the truth. Today a Grammy-winning children's music duo, Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing met at age 3; they attended the same Denver-area schools, went camping in the Rockies as kids and learned how to play guitar as teens. Over the years, the men essentially became family, chosen brothers as they grew into their shared career.

Influenced in part by Bob Dylan and John Denver, The Okee Dokee Brothers compose joyous songs with singalong harmonies and a hearty Americana soul. Like their live shows, their CDs are big hits with kids as young as 2, up through 9 or 10, as well as adults who appreciate the layered lyrics and subtle life lessons. The Brothers' latest release, "Saddle Up," is the final entry in a perfectly conceived and smartly designed trilogy, the "Adventure Album" series. Each recording followed an epic 30-day camping trip. "Can You Canoe?" (their Grammy winner) was inspired by a river trip down the Mississippi; "Through the Woods" came after hiking the Appalachian Trail; "Saddle Up" took them by horseback across the Wild West (and by mule when they descended to the bottom of the Grand Canyon). Each of the three CDs includes a DVD of music videos, made with footage from their exploits outdoors.

The duo vie for another Grammy on Feb. 12. Without making any predictions, "Saddle Up" easily deserves the honor of best children's album. If the Brothers win a bookend trophy, it will be thanks to songs such as the clever "Jackalope," which winks to the rabbit-beast myth by evoking Ennio Morricone-style whistle and slide guitar, and tender "Sister Moon and Brother Sun," inspired by creation stories they heard during time spent in Navajo Nation. Mailander (a new dad living with his wife in Minneapolis) and Lansing (who moved back to Denver with his bride) sat down to discuss their career during a visit to Chicago last year. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.

Q: How did you get started as musicians?

Lansing: Joe had taken a couple of guitar lessons in high school, and he had an extra guitar. He said, "You should take this home and start." We started picking up chords and learning from each other.

Mailander: I had played piano for a number of years beforehand, but really, music started meaning a lot more to me when I could share it with a friend. When we'd go camping, we'd always bring guitar and banjo. We did start playing rock music together, but slowly over the years, we transitioned more into an acoustic folk-music duo and started writing our own songs. You can have participatory singing, dancing, call-and-response — which all plays really nicely into what we do today with children's music.

Q: How much composing for the "Adventure Albums" did you do while camping?

Mailander: We look at the trip as not only the 30 days we're out there, but the whole process of gearing up for the trip and then reflecting back on the trip. We're writing songs that whole time. There are four or five songs on every album that come directly from experiences we had on the trip. "Lighten Your Load" is a prime example of that. We really felt the weight of those backpacks!

Q: Tell me about one great thing that happened during your travels out West.

Lansing: We got to go to a national monument called Canyon de Chelly; it's in Arizona in the Navajo Nation. To go in there, you have to have a Navajo guide. It's a spiritual place for the Navajo people, with a lot of history. We were able to camp out in the canyon and watch the sun rise along the walls of the cliff. It was very special.

Mailander: I love the idea of collaborating with musicians from the region. We got to write a song with Carlos Medina, an accordion player with a band called El Trio Los Gallos. We went out on a bridge across the Rio Grande. That was important to us, bridging these two cultures and languages. We worked on "Somos Amigos" and gave Carlos a verse to sing.

Q: You released a gorgeous picture book last year — "Can You Canoe?" — with illustrations accompanying your song lyrics. And now a second book is on its way — with an original story?

Mailander: Yes, "Thousand Star Hotel" is our first storybook, available on March 7. The story is our new spin on the folk tale "The Fisherman and His Wife." It comes with a CD audiobook performed by us and some other voice actors, plus a brand-new track and a collection of songs from our "Adventure Albums.'

Q: Which award or accolade that you've received means the most to you?

Lansing: The Grammy was the biggest award we could've gotten in children's music, and it was really good for us. It's a fun experience. But it's just an award. The fan base is what gives us everything we need as artists.

Mailander: We get these cards and artwork and fan mail from our kid fans, and honestly, we keep those. We have a whole file full of these little cards. Sometimes they have songs or poems the kids write. That holds the most emotion — touching kids' lives and inspiring them. That's what we're all about.

Web Behrens is a freelancer.

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